Friday, March 27, 2009

McDonalds and World-building

The one time I was able to travel abroad, I visited Ireland. And I needed the University of Virginia to help pay for it. (Ahhh, a J-term trip.) I was significantly older than many of the students on the trip. Since I'd been of drinking legally for quite a while, getting hammered wasn't at the top of my list.

Nor was visiting McDonald's. Yes, there was a McDonald's in Galway, and yes, some students ate there. But I hadn't come to Ireland to experience the familiar. 

What I remember of Galway is the little pub the locals attended. You had to climb a cramped staircase to reach a second story room. There, musicians would pull their chairs in a circle, settle their pints beneath their chairs, and make music your blood danced to.

There were trees enough in Ireland, but I remember the palm trees on the Claddagh that grew within view of the North Atlantic. I remember an ancient tree that grew beside an even older church. The tree had a holy spring in it, and all sorts of coins and prayers were tacked to its trunk. Tiny baby clothes were fastened there as well. (Travellers believed that leaving a sick infant's belongings at the tree would bring healing to the child.) 

So what does this have to do with writing? We've ruminated on ways to make characters compelling. How can I make my MS's world intriguing?

Bruce Coville quoted another author's observation on the Harry Potter series. He said one of the reasons the series was so popular was that the world was just plain cool- readers always discovered something. Harry didn't just snack, he ate Bertie Bott's Jelly Beans and hoped he didn't get the ones that tasted like vomit.

I have a tendency to just describe the world my characters are in: trees are here, mountains here, house here. First drafts are often mind-numbingly boring because I can look up from the MS and see the exact same things.  I'm learning that making a fictional world interesting means including culture as well. I need:

Unique customs or roles. Lisa's WIP includes magic. Witches have different roles, one of which is healer. No surprise there. But another role is that of secret keeper. Just mentioning that made me feel that I was in a distinct place. Bridget is writing a story about a troop of chimps. I didn't know that only males slept on the ground at night- but they do, and suddenly I'm interested in a little female chimp that's going to spend her nights on the ground. 

Names with history. My WIP takes place in a mountain country, so I've done a lot of research based on Switzerland. Did you know that in one valley, they had different names for three kinds of avalanches? Being that specific gives a word weight- I'm dealing with people who have observed (and avoided) avalanches for generations.

Lore. Someone once pointed out to me that America's mythology includes stories of the immigrant who becomes rich and/or powerful. We don't recognize it because we're in the middle of it, but it's true. Every country has its stories that show people their place in the world and point them towards worthy goals. So, what stories did your characters read/hear growing up?
Regions have their own stories. (Back to Switzerland research again.) Did you know there's an entire portion of (not just Swiss) folklore devoted to people who trick the Devil into building or preserving a bridge? You wouldn't get such stories on flatlands, but you'd expect them in the mountains.

What I remembered most in Ireland was the unique. I remember the pub, not the fast food joint. I saw plenty of trees, but I remember the palms. And I still wonder about the infants whose clothing was left on the tree at the holy spring. 

In the same way, I want to make my story's world unique. I don't want prop trees and mountains and houses because my characters have to be somewhere. I want to take the time to develop a real world, and I want to limit narration that describes ... McDonald's- those things my readers have already encountered. 

If I succeed with that, I think readers will want to linger in the world I've made. Any other ideas about making a world compelling? 


Michelle said...

This goes with my theory of why American Idol works. It's Cinderella for the 21st century. We all love a rags-to-riches story, and the Idol stage is the ball of today. The only question is: which judge is the prince, and which is the fairy godmother?

Lisa said...

Funny Sarah, I remember the palm trees in Ireland too!

You make some good points here. I would add that the uniqueness doesn't have to be exotic. You could write about that McDonald's in a compelling way. We tend to ignore the familiar because we think we know all there is to know about the things we pass by every day. Part of our job as writers is to make the reader stop and take a new look at the things they think they know--remind them of the light veins on leaves and the smell of wet earth warmed by the sun.

The setting for your WIP is based on Switzerland. But the setting for mine is based on the river valley where I grew up. Not exotic to me at all. But I'm hoping to take that place that I know and love so well and bring it alive for my reader.

There's nothing wrong with using what you see outside your front door. You know it better than you know some place you only read about. And it's those sensory details that are so hard to get right if you haven't been to a place. What does Switzerland smell like?

I guess that's why you're doing all that research. I just have to research steam technology and parts of ships. :)